At this moment, a savage microbe is holding the human world hostage, forcing nearly 4 billion of our industrious, gallivanting kind into a society of shut-ins. Confined to our homes—if we’re lucky enough to have them—we’re banding apart, hoping to slow the spread and deprive a greedy pathogen of any more human hosts. covid-19 already has plenty.
Indoors indefinitely, we watch the outside world through our screens. We see New York’s wrapped bodies stacked and refrigerated, army trucks carrying off Italy’s dead, rising curves, health care workers weeping, politicians clinging to poise, and we wonder: Should I buy more canned goods? Is my family safe? Can I still smell stuff? Did our lockdown come too late? Will there be jobs when it’s over? When will it be over? Is it okay to walk the dog?
Humans are not well designed for this slow-burn brand of threat. We’re better equipped for one-off attacks than abstract menaces. Give us muggers, hurricanes, sabre-toothed tigers, hazards that compel us to battle or run for our lives—not the protracted uncertainty of a contagion that has killed tens of thousands and counting.
So just how is the human brain responding to all this?
“It’s screaming,” says Susan Krauss Whitbourne, a professor of psychological and brain sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “I know, it’s a very technical term,” she jokes. “But, in our brains, there’s a lot of screaming going on right now.”
The coronavirus pandemic has triggered the brain’s ancient alarm system, Whitbourne explains. It’s sounding full blast, and who knows when it will quiet?
As with everything else covid-19 has exposed—bare-bones health care systems, threadbare social safety nets, fragile economies—it has also unmasked the flaws of our neurobiology, glitches in the way we assess risk and in the fight-or-flight way we react to it. These neural kinks from another time have shaped everything from how we responded to this virus from the get-go (or, rather, how we didn’t respond) straight through to the mental burden we carry now.
The problem, in many ways, is one of architecture. The human brain is like a three-storey heritage building, constructed haphazardly by the forces of evolution over a very long time—and the old threat-detector is in the basement.
It sprouted in the primordial ooze, 500 million years ago, bequeathed by fish to our reptilian ancestors, lizard-like creatures that slithered out to make a go of life on land. To this day, the reptilian brain—home to the brain stem and cerebellum—is the master of our vital functions: breathing, sleeping, heart rate, swallowing, movement.
The lizard brain takes its cues from the second-floor addition that the early mammals punched out about 150 million years ago, giving us the unconscious magic of our limbic system: the memory bank of our hippocampus; a hypothalamus that governs emotional responses, blood pressure, and hormones; and the wee almond-shaped fear-processing amygdala that’s been key to our survival ever since our blood ran warm.
After furry mammals eventually evolved into us, up went the top floor of our cortex, the brain’s executive suite, with its spacious lobes and their astonishing power to learn, speak, plan, anticipate, deliberate—and oh, how they love to imagine.
For all the neural advancement, threat detection remained the job of the lower structures. At the mere inkling of danger, it’s the amygdala that kicks our famous fight, flight, or freeze response into motion. It sends a distress signal to the hypothalamus, which triggers the release of adrenalin and cortisol and rouses the reptilian brain a floor below to rev the body for action, pumping up heart rate, breathing, and blood flow so we can, in a flash, dodge an oncoming car or jump back from a snake attack. Research suggests the amygdala is so attuned to danger that it can make us recoil before we’re even aware that there is a snake coming toward us in the grass.
The trouble is that, in the modern world, the limbic and lizard brains can be notorious overreactors: part of our unconscious minds, they can mistake everyday stressors for life-and-death threats. And firing up the same response to deadlines and traffic jams as they once did to charging mammoths and bison hunts gone bad can take a toll on the body. Chronically higher levels of adrenalin and cortisol can be hard on the heart, the arteries, the metabolism, and the mind.
Worse, our primitive brain regions have no capacity to distinguish between threats that are real and those we imagine. It’s a failing that contributes to disorders of panic and anxiety—and also what makes covid-19 such a headache.
As our cerebral brain contemplates the threat of covid-19, as it is so inclined to do, turning over endless permutations of the devastation the virus may cause, the limbic system pokes the reptile in the basement—which never thinks twice before jacking up the body to act—as if the microbe itself were leaping from the bushes.
“With this kind of threat, you’ve got the amygdala kicking . . . the fight-or-flight syndrome, you’re kind of operating from the brain stem and below,” says Whitbourne. However, “the fear is mixed with higher-order brain structures trying to regulate the fear and come up with a kind of a plan.”
In that way, Whitbourne says, the pandemic represents a unique threat: the brain is forced to respond to an uncertain danger and, at the same time, is dramatically affected by the effort to contain it.
“Your world is no longer the same. Usually, we have a chance to adapt to big events, and even going back to the disaster of 9/11, people had one day, one hour, or a minute and everything changed,” she says. “But it didn’t have that all-encompassing, life-changing effect on your physical self.
“This is a completely new situation. It’s not like war. You’re not directly in the scene of action, it’s not like the people in the bombing raids of World War II, for example. They knew what was coming at them—and it was terrifying, to be sure—but they could see it.”
Humans have a spotty track record of relating to the invisible—think Santa, God, climate change. It’s estimated that 20 to 30 percent of our brain is devoted to processing visual information, and what we can’t see, research suggests, we tend to forget.
But that’s not the whole story with covid-19. In neuroscience, it’s generally accepted that well-defined threats trigger fear while uncertain dangers provoke anxiety—the brain’s second defensive system. In a 2016 study from University College London, for example, researchers concluded that a more visible predator in a video game resulted in faster motor reaction times, which is in line with the fear-triggered fight-or-flight response. But, when the predator was hidden, reaction times slowed as the amygdala worked harder to assess the threat.
Whitbourne suspects that the invisible nature of the pandemic sets off a fluctuating, back-and-forth brain reaction that toggles between fear, anxiety, and calm.
Knowing there’s currently no drug to cure the disease or vaccine to prevent it may be enough to set off a flight reaction—but, in the case of covid-19, to where would we flee? Lockdown has already penned us into our homes—or whatever shelter we’ve found in this storm—where we have much time to consider how we’re feeling.
… in our brains, there’s a lot of screaming going on right now.
“When we have more time to reflect, that’s when you have more interaction between the higher-order brain structures, between the rational versus the gut-wrenching fear people have—and rightly so,” says Whitbourne. “It comes in waves, because you might calm down for a while, and then something makes you afraid again.”
Which is why the next major neural challenge is sitting still.
All over the web, funny memes have spread about the relatively miniscule sacrifice people are being asked to make to beat this viral enemy. One reads, “Your grandparents were being called to war. You’re being called to the couch.”
Yet, for some, staying inactive is its own battle. Fear, after all, is the great motivator. It kept the troglodyte searching for the perfect cave. Fear of failure keeps a student up cramming all night. Fear of the coronavirus will sway the anxious to shell out more than $50 for hand sanitizer. At the same time, the physiological impact of the reptilian brain’s fear response—pumping up energy levels as it does—cues us to do and to move. It’s the essence of fight or flight.
The brain wants to act in stressful situations, says Steven Taylor, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia and the author of The Psychology of Pandemics. With the global spread of the coronavirus, we see the threat is major, the scope is massive, the whole world is affected; we’re primed for big action—and the instructions are: wash your hands.
For some, Taylor says, that just doesn’t seem like enough. “People want to feel like they’re doing something rather than just sitting at home twiddling thumbs.”
Even he struggles to digest the surreality of it. “It occurred to me yesterday that it’s one thing to write about a pandemic, which I did, and another thing to actually live through it. It’s a little bit disorienting to look out your window and see the streets empty.”
Taylor, who treats people with anxiety disorders, began work on his book in 2018. Having read virologists’ warnings that the next pandemic was on its way, he wanted to explore what role psychological factors would play in such a crisis. This sent him on a deep dive into history’s outbreaks, and one of the things he found was that people’s fears and attitudes can alter the course of a contagion: as we are all learning now, how strictly we choose to follow stay-home orders, will determine how widely the virus spreads and how many it kills.
Taylor wrote his book believing it could one day have relevant implications. His editor, he recalls, felt otherwise: “He said to me, ‘Yeah, that’s important, but no one will ever read that book.’” Like the rejection letters J. K. Rowling once received turning down the adventures of a boy wizard, those pronouncements now seem quaint. Taylor, who found another publisher, released his book late last year—just about the same time the new coronavirus was making its quiet debut in Wuhan. And none of his insights—about mass panic, hygiene practices, and emotional responses—are hypothetical anymore.
The outbreak, for instance, is also spreading sadness, Taylor says, “because all the important social things in life, cultural milestones, are being cancelled, weddings and so forth. I was invited last week to attend a funeral by Skype.”
All this contributes to a sense that people have lost control of their lives—and people, primed to act when in a state of fear, “want the illusion of control.” This is why so many of us shift into panic-buying mode, Taylor says—not only to give ourselves an action we can carry out in the face of a threat but also because stockpiling goods gives us the illusion of having some command of the situation. And panic buying, like fear, is contagious. During the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which is estimated to have killed at least 50 million, people stocked up on Vicks VapoRub, believing it was helpful to rub the mentholated ointment on your chest. But Taylor never predicted the patterns of “quirky hoarding” that the twenty-first century pandemic would bring—in Vancouver, he says, it’s been cannabis, and almost everywhere, toilet paper. “I’m so sick of talking about toilet paper, I can’t tell you.”
Andrea Soddu, a neuroscientist at Western University’s Brain and Mind Institute, says vulnerability, along with fear, can push people to do things “that are not very rational.” Soddu, who studies human consciousness, describes it as a debate playing out between our reptilian structures and our highly evolved frontal lobe executives—even if we’re not aware of it.
Lizard Brain:Buy the toilet paper, buy it all!
Executive Lobe:I know you are scared and you feel you need to do something, but please, just go home, stay home, wash your hands, and don’t touch your mouth. That’s what you can do, okay?
Lizard Brain:No, I can do more than that! I can buy more toilet paper!
“When we feel very vulnerable, we start overthinking,” Soddu says. The brain falls into a loop of fearfulness—and this is when people need to consciously shift their attention, he says. “You need to distract your brain: do the cooking, go walking, do things with your hands. Otherwise, it’s like a vortex and you can’t get out of it.”
That vortex, he believes, also sheds light on the motivations of people now driving up gun sales in Canada and the US. In one instance that made headlines, a Wisconsin man said he wanted the weapon to protect his family against home invaders who might be eager to steal their supplies. In Calgary, the owner of The Shooting Edge told ctv News that sales had gone up by as much as 35 percent with the outbreak. Another store owner, in New Jersey, told the Star-Ledger, “They just say, ‘I want a gun, I want a gun.’ . . . They’re coming apart at the seams, these people.” And a North Carolina merchant told the Charlotte Observer his store has a new motto: “Dedicated to helping you protect your toilet paper.”
Like most things involving the coronavirus, the switch from mild concern to full-blown panic happened at top speed. One moment, it was just a regional outbreak of a few dozen cases, a new pathogen without a name. The next, it had gone global and the schools were closed. Yet, though we had seen the makeshift hospitals spring up like weeds in the dirt fields of Wuhan, and even when we knew, after sars, that any microbe is but a boarding pass away, the hard landing of covid-19 seemed to take us by surprise.
As with grief, says Soddu, “the very first component of the brain’s response to bad news is denial.”
In some cases, denial can be a good thing, a protective, unconscious mechanism the brain uses to buy itself time to absorb distressing or shocking information without tipping off a psychic maelstrom. But, of course, denial also has a dark, harmful side—it can block you from taking appropriate action.
Originally from Italy, Soddu believes the refusal to accept the coronavirus as an imminent threat helps explain why it has so dramatically devastated his native country. “People think, ‘Oh, it’s not going to happen to me!’ That’s the sense of being invincible, the sense that these things do not affect you. So a lot of people kept behaving as before, denying and not thinking of what the real consequences could be, because they saw it as something that was far away.
“At the end, I think, this is what produced such a spread, because people were not observing the restrictions, especially at the very beginning.”
In public health, denial is a well-known epidemic, one usually coupled with the false sense that faraway scourges pose little threat to the rest of us. Ebola, for instance, has been around since 1976, but not until the outbreak in West Africa from 2013 to 2016 did the hemorrhagic fever catch the world’s attention, says bioethicist Maxwell Smith, “because [then] that outbreak had the potential to infect us in Canada and the US.
“So then, all of a sudden, you started thinking about whether this was a public health emergency of international concern . . . yet we hadn’t been thinking about this for decades before, because it’s only affecting poor nations in Africa,” says Smith, a professor at Western University’s School of Health Studies. “As soon as it becomes something that impacts self-interest, that’s when we start to care—and that’s at the last minute.”
Yet, if you usher in containment measures too early and an outbreak is milder than expected—as happened with h1n1 in 2009—you seed public mistrust and accusations that you’ve overreacted, says Smith. He calls it the “paradox of public health”—the success of an initiative is gauged by what does not happen. (And, when the worst doesn’t happen, Smith adds, people question the need for and value of public health protocols.)
With covid-19, the approach has been to gradually scale up voluntary containment measures, and “as people become accustomed to those, then you say, ‘We have to ratchet it up.’ . . . You don’t go straight to locking down the country in mid-January, in anticipation of all of this, because by the time the virus gets here, in mid-February or March, it may be that the public doesn’t trust public health authorities again because we didn’t get it right.”
The scope of the current pandemic offers the public a unique perspective on the importance of containment efforts, Smith says, because people can actually see what’s happening in other countries: what’s working, what isn’t, and the consequences of perhaps not trying hard enough. In the context of dealing with an enemy that’s invisible, it’s a compelling visual motivator to stay home and isolate.
From law-enforced quarantines to widespread closures of churches, playgrounds, and parks, the circles of isolation expand steadily, and social norms seem to mutate on the fly. The upshot is that life in the time of covid-19 is already heralding a new age of morality, when suspicion follows a casual stroll and a public sneeze and each step beyond your own front door is freighted with second guesses.
Not everyone cooperates. In the early days, notable nonconformers included beach goers in Vancouver, spring breakers in Florida, and returning snowbirds out to restock their empty fridges. But authorities always knew the social restrictions would be a hard sell, says Taylor, who’s also an adviser on risk and human behaviour with the Canadian government’s expert pandemic panel. With sweeping social-containment rules and the quick financial meltdown that has followed them, it’s widely expected that the pandemic will spread distress and despair along with disease.
The government decision to direct people to self-isolate wasn’t taken lightly, Taylor says. “They’ve had to ask themselves, ‘When do you implement this?’ You know it’s going to be enormously costly for everyone and you know there’s only a certain amount of time that you can expect really good adherence.
“Some people, their marriages will crumble because they’re in isolation and get cabin fever. Some will lose their jobs and lose their houses and go bankrupt. The financial impact is going to hit some people very hard and that will impact their well-being.
“So, the longer it drags out, in highly individualistic societies, like Canada or America, the more people will rebel.”
There’s an analogy Soddu, the Western University neuroscientist, heard recently that he felt nicely summed up why the world must pull together to beat the coronavirus. The situation is not like a meteorite hurtling toward the Earth: a large force coming at us from the outside with nothing anyone can do to stop it, he says. “It’s more like you are in a big car, and everybody has a brake pedal, and it’s up to everyone to keep their foot on the pedal to stop the car from colliding into a wall. We can do it as a collective.” But, in this case, he says, “The collective behaviour came very late.”
“It’s the absence of a sense of community,” says Soddu. “We lost that.”
Whether humans are biologically built to be socially cooperative in the face of threats is an unresolved debate in the sciences. Few experts doubt that cooperation has enabled the survival of our species: we have long relied on a village to raise a child or strength in numbers to bring home the bison. But whether we’re hardwired with the inclination to foster community is a debate as fraught as drawing lines between nature and nurture. Research with infants suggests that the desire to empathize takes off in our first year; the study of twins indicates that genes can predispose us toward self-interest or altruism, but genes are reactive and riff off the environment in which they exist.
In today’s world, Soddu argues, we generally lead solitary, self-sufficient lives with little appreciation for what can be achieved as a group. “My parents and grandparents lived through the war, and at that time, everybody felt there was a sense of community and ‘let’s do it together.’” Today, people tend to think of society as something that “imposes things, like taxes,” not as a collective that achieves together. Soddu points to declining voter turnout over the past forty years as evidence of this indifference. He also cites the weaker bonds of our virtual social networks and the general disregard for the well-being of others.
“Before covid-19, if you woke up one morning and you had to go to work, but you don’t feel good, you feel shitty, and you take your temperature and you were maybe 37 or 38 [degrees], what do you do?” says Soddu. “You say, ‘No, no, I need to be at work,’ so you take an Aspirin and then you go.” The consideration that you might expose someone else, perhaps even cause serious illness in someone immunocompromised, did not change your mind, says Soddu. “We lost the sense of responsibility toward the vulnerable ones.”
Philip Mai, co-director of the Social Media Lab at Toronto’s Ryerson University, views it differently. Online, he sees the sense of community flourishing. Mai and his team are running a government-funded project to track and counter coronavirus-related online misinformation and provide province-specific updates. While it’s early days, Mai says, it is already apparent that social media has become an important community hub during the outbreak, locally and beyond.
People have helpfully tweeted which stores have run out of toilet paper, for example, and which still have it, says Mai. “Then all these groups spring up [with people saying], ‘I can shop for seniors while I pick up my own bag of beans and I can drop it off, so let me know if you need the help.’ So very, very practical stuff.”
The idea that a community is just “your neighbourhood and the sixty people you come in contact with on a daily basis is gone, simply because we live more solitary lives, so we use technology as the intermediary. So we have to think of community in a wider way,” says Mai, whose own community includes his family members in Vietnam—who know from his social media feeds what he had for dinner—and the people he follows on Twitter, “who are no less real than my neighbour who lives next to me.”
The extent to which technology is rewiring the brain, changing its perceptions of the self and the world around us, is another evolving story. Just a few weeks ago, Mai says, the social narrative around technology was that too much screen time is harming our brains. But now, in the lockdown of the pandemic, “it’s seen as the best way to connect to family and friends,” which helps keep our brains happy and healthy.
One danger with social media is the potentially numbing onslaught of information and, at times, misinformation. People get fed up with conflicting instructions, Mai says, and decide, “I’m not listening to anything.” It could become an “infodemic,” he says, likening the barrage to a waterfall. “What you want to do is turn that waterfall into a tap that you can turn on and off.”
While there are many examples of humanity’s best qualities online as people reach out to help others, there’s also growing evidence of its nasty underbelly: there’s been the rise of self-appointed pandemic police, outing supply hoarders and stockpilers—on YouTube, footage of a BC couple with two cartfuls of meat went viral—and the “quarantine shamers,” who livestream those breaking physical distancing rules under #covidiots, and the smug. They’re the ones, says Mai, who will write, “You deserve to be stuck in Morocco—you knew before you flew out” or “Enjoy Peru— you’re going to be there for quite a while, and it’s your own fault!”
“That’s why we did not see a lot of offers of help for Wuhan when they were going through what they were going through, because there’s a sense that, if you didn’t live the way you live, you wouldn’t be in this trouble, so you kind of deserve it.”
There’s a sentiment shared online that humankind had this pandemic coming, that our reckless exploitation of the planet finally caught up with us. And so, in biblical style, fate sent the threat of a pox to all our houses so we’d stay home, park our cars, and ground our planes. One popular Facebook post portrays the pandemic in a Dr. Seuss–style poem arguing that, with the outbreak, “the lungs of the planet caught a small break.”
The notion may well have inspired the creators of a spate of unusually positive fake news as well—doctored photos of nature’s romantic comeback during the covid-19 shutdown. Beyond toilet paper, it’s another element of the pandemic that surprised Taylor. “We’re all prepared for fake news that spreads malicious stuff, but with this, there’s been a rise of positive stuff that’s fake, which is fascinating.” Among it: photos of dolphins said to be swimming in the now clear canals of Venice (the photos having actually been taken in Sardinia) and a fiction about elephants in China getting drunk on corn wine before passing out in a lovely garden. “They went viral because they depicted images that made people feel good,” says Taylor. “And people see this, and they keep sharing it and circulating it, because they want to make others feel good. That was something that I didn’t anticipate.”
Taylor also agrees that these fake images of the wilderness winning have had particular traction in the public psyche when there’s a growing awareness of climate change and the havoc people have wrought on the planet.
It may be that the pandemic is forcing a social reckoning—long overdue—with the fact that human disregard for life forms other than our own can have deadly consequences on a global scale. After all, if a mere microbe can overtake the business of nearly 200 countries and terrorize us by the billions, will it upend the notion that there is a natural hierarchy—one in which we humans are always on top? Will humans, in whatever state we emerge from this crisis, be humbled?
In a matter of weeks, the world’s response to the coronavirus has been wildly more united and aggressive than any initiative to save the planet. Yet, as far as threats go, climate change and covid-19 would seem to have much in common in the way they hit the brain. They’re both abstract and global in scope. But, while people initially found it hard to muster a meaningful response to the threat of a new virus, neurobiologically speaking, mounting an urgent response to climate change is even tougher. Not only are rising temperatures and sea levels largely invisible, their most dramatic visual examples unfolding at a distance (so long, Antarctica), they’re also distant in time. Climate change is a drawn-out threat, with future generations expected to feel the worst of its impact. To the reptile in the basement, the pouncing sabre-toothed tiger in front of you always takes priority. In fact, there’s much research to suggest that the human brain does a lousy job assessing future threats, in large part because people don’t even relate well to their future selves. (If they did, they might exercise more and sock away more for retirement.)
Several imaging studies have found that thinking about oneself in the present activates the brain’s medial prefrontal cortex, which is part of that top-floor executive suite involved in behaviour and social cognition. It stays highly active when people think about family members and others they care about. But, when they consider people they have less connection to, this area becomes less active; its activity is similarly weak when subjects are asked to think about themselves in the future.
Writing about the phenomenon for Slate in 2017, Jane McGonigal, a research director at the California-based Institute for the Future, said it’s as if our future selves “are strangers to us.”
“This glitchy brain behavior may make it harder for us to take actions that benefit our future selves both as individuals and as a society,” she added. “The more your brain treats your future self like a stranger . . . the less likely you are to make pro-social choices that will help the world in the long run.”
Whether any of this changes after the pandemic—whether our long history of adaptation forces us, in the post-covid-19 moment, to recognize that it’s our approach to the world that needs adapting—is another of its great uncertainties.